Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 3, 2007

Reading IS Fundamental

The latest report from the National Endowment for the Arts on “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence” confirms what college professors know from their experience: college students are reading less and reading less well. There is a good chance that those cherubs sitting in our classes with bored looks:

  • watch 2.5 hours of television for every 7 minutes they read — anything, whether newspapers, books, or magazines.
  • are simultaneously watching tv, talking on the cell phone, IMing friends, playing video games, and listening to music while they are reading.
  • rarely have read a book for pleasure, let alone for personal insight.
  • spend far more time ‘reading’ the multiple screens in their lives than reading anything in print.
  • rarely listen to the news on radio, watch it on tv, or browse stories on the web. All of those people on the street that Jay Leno interviews who are pitifully ignorant about stories in the news? Those adults who aren’t “as smart as a fifth grader”? Yes, many of them are or were our students.
  • are among the 30% of college freshmen who are not reading at their grade level.

There are far more depressing statistics than I care to repeat here. Unfortunately, none of these statistics surprise me after 3 plus decades of teaching college students.

The decline in reading is symptomatic of much more serious issues that I see every day in the classroom. The fact is that reading, writing, understanding, and speaking are involved in a synergistic relationship: if you read poorly, the chances are great that you understand poorly, write poorly, and speak poorly. I can virtually guarantee that students of mine who turn in shoddy written work have failed to comprehend the author’s thesis or grasped the deeper contours of an issue discussed by various writers. They are unable to write well because they are unable to think well. They are unable to do either because they are unable to read well.

Students who cannot read well are also unable to think very deeply about any serious matter, whether current event, whom they will marry, whether God exists, what the Good Life is, or what occupation they will pursue — let alone what public policies our nation ought to pursue. Employers increasingly lament that their employees are incapable of reading and understanding complex manuals, making clear presentations, or composing succinct memos. How much bloated code is being written by programmers who are poor readers? How many have been falsely convicted because their lawyers were sloppy readers?

Reading involves more than identifying letters and words. Literacy requires:

  • the ability to dig out an author’s meaning and draw connections with other writers on the subject.
  • the ability to follow and evaluate an author’s claims, perspective and argument.
  • the ability to concentrate intently for long periods of time in quiet and solitude.
  • indwelling the text while engaged in a running conversation with self and author.
  • turning the words over in one’s mind and chewing them to extract all of their nutrients.
  • the ability to think abstractly and metaphorically.

Literacy is not an inborn or an intuitive trait; it is a skill that requires hard work and practice to perfect. Many of my students lack this skill. They are functionally illiterate. They have only a rudimentary ability to decipher marks on a page and little grit and determination to learn to read well. It is far easier for them to be ‘wowed’ by multiple waves of sensory stimulation than by the hard-won mental struggle to determine an author’s meaning. The tragedy is that these students are not dumb; they are intelligent. They have failed, however, to turn their native intelligence to their best advantage by learning to read well.

One of the great ironies, of course, is that we are seeing this alarming decline in basic reading at a time when many universities are lauding online education as a breakthrough opportunity for developing higher-order thinking skills. With the rich array of multi-media on the web, students, so the advertising goes, can now explore their own paths to learning, synthesize their findings, and arrive at a superior understanding of their classwork than was possible in the confined world of print. I’m still waiting to see it. After teaching online for 7 years, I have yet to see this explosion of intellectual firepower unleashed by the resources the web offers.

Personally, I am thrilled by the many, many intellectually rich and graphically sophisticated websites I can suggest to my students. My experience, however, confirms the sobering reality that without an already well-developed ability to read, along with its attendant powers of comprehension and expression, the richness of these websites will not be fully explored and appreciated. It is casting pearls before swine. Most of the time students come away from an exposure to these sites with a superficial understanding of the materials at best. (Of course, the same thing has been true for all other multi-media that have been hyped as ‘the answer’ to our educational woes, from Edison’s phonograph to video. What seasoned educator seriously believes that changing the medium will magically transform their students’ academic performance? ) As we all know: seeing and hearing is not understanding.

I, too, yearn to see my students develop the higher-order thinking skills of understanding, synthesis, and wisdom. Too many of them, however, are still enthralled by the illusion cast by the hype of technology that collecting bits of data and information strewn about the internet is the mark of being educated. The bitter truth is that subjecting students to multiple screens will not transform them into critical thinkers. That will only happen when they sit down with a book and pencil, wrestle with the author’s meaning, and verbalize it in writing and conversation.

Reading IS fundamental. Communicating in and through language, spoken and written, is the mark of our humanity. Crossing the divide between orality and literacy was a major step forward for civilization. Unfortunately, our society is not simply exchanging old forms of communication, like print, for new ones, like the internet; it is regressing to the pre-literate forms of communication of image, code, sign, and symbol. Iconography and video can only enhance and illustrate what we have already learned through our linguistic ability; they can never substitute for it. Only by learning to read deeply will students be able to take full advantage of the rich intellectual and graphic fare served up on the internet.

I do not have time to develop the thought here, but the decline in reading has important implications for the Christian tradition that prides itself on being people of The Book.

Books on my shelves that raise additional philosophical, political, theological, and social issues related to the decline of reading include:

  • Jane Healy, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Brains–for Better and Worse
  • Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word
  • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, a classic.
  • Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word.
  • Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
  • Michael Hobart and Zachary Shiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution.
  • Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts.
  • Barry Sanders, A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age.
  • Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind.

Of course, nothing that I have said above applies to any of my students who happen to find this blog. šŸ˜‰ Anyone else who takes the time to read this dense communication has already learned to read well and so can reap the benefits that the internet opens up to them.



  1. Kenn…thanks for pointing me to your blog. Terrific article on reading, and, by the looks of it, there are many more that you’ve written, which invite me to spend mucho time there. I’m glad I’ve finally found it…really! It’ll be fun to dig into some of your other thoughts. I’ve always respected your deep level of thoughtful social critique and insights into the application of faith to living. Keep up the writing! And, by the way, when are you going to put together an edited book of your essays??


  2. […] released a report on the alarming fall-off in reading among young adults over the past decade; I have written a blog reflecting on that report. Second, a student in my “Technology and Society” class this […]

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